Honours Are on the Out… But in Malaysia it’s Hard to Stem the Tide

Insignia of Panglima Jasa Negara
Insignia of Panglima Jasa Negara

The British tabloids have always had a penchant for naming and shaming. Most recently, Andrew Mitchel has lost his Cabinet position in government, Jimmy Savile’s name has been tarnished with child sex abuses, Bashar Al-Assad has finally broken the apparently unimpeachable political profile of the 50 year Assad regime, Lance Armstrong will never cycle again and, even in the allegedly morally corrupt communist government of the People’s Republic of China, Bo Xilai lost his position in the Central Politburo after being accused of ‘abuse of power, bribe-taking and violating party discipline,’ according to the BBC.

A spate of Icarian stories; these people delved too deep and foolishly ignored the very real bite of the media beast. They can no longer hide and neither will they- and others- be able to shake off the unwashable smear painted by news media around the world sprayed into their eyes like a robber attacked with a blue dye spray can. The moral U-turns embroiling them in their fall from hubris were following a rise to greatness achieved by an unrivalled commitment in their fields.

Should they have ignored the rise to the top in the first place? Certainly, they would have adopted a position with less risk should they be found to be dipping into acts most questionable. Should they have been more humble like those refusing the next step-up?

The British honorary system is under considerable pressure of losing its exclusive appeal to those waiting to be blessed by the most popular monarch in the world. Being ridiculed by the likes of John Lennon, Joseph Corre, and writer J. G. Ballard describing the Queen’s honour system as a “preposterous charade”, being bestowed with a Knighthood, CH, CBE or OBE is fast losing its credit.

As of the 26th January 2012 the British government released a report uncovering 277 people who have refused being bestowed the right into the elite upper-class of the British people. The motivations for these refusals vary but none, however, quite as blazingly as John Lennon quoted by the BBC as replying to his letter of acceptance saying:

“Your Majesty, I am returning this in protest against Britain’s involvement in the Nigeria-Biafra thing, against our support of America in Vietnam and against Cold Turkey slipping down the charts.

With Love, John Lennon of Bag.”

But in other cases the snub is more personal. With L. S. Lowry refusing various titles up to seven times during his lifetime, he- ironically- holds the title as the person who has most refused any of the Queen’s Honours and that he held a deep-rooted idea of the system which he never spoke of. In an act of apparent humility, Ken Livingstone- a socialist democrat- refused Knighthood for his efforts in London local government saying that he truly did not believe he deserved it, possibly the only right answer he ever gave to a question. And finally, in the true nature of his rebellious side and always up for a joke, Roald Dahl refused an OBE because he really wanted a Knighthood for the simple reason that his wife could be called Lady Dahl.

Amazing to think how many of the gifted few have shunned such acceptance and praise. But have these few also pre-empted the dilution of such titles due to the fast and growing availability to them. Just this year- bearing in mind I am writing on the 7th January- 1,223 have been recognised by the Queen on the New Years Honours List, but lets remember they have not been granted their titles yet.

However, the spectacle of honours has also transgressed into areas of the Commonwealth where they have arguably been used rather than gained. Malaysia, an historically British colony which is now benefiting more and more with its ties to Great Britain, has its own honour system replete with confusion and complicity. Divided into titles bestowed on a federal (national) level and a state (county) level it has been alleged that ownership has been purchased for the benefit of social standing and business advantages. Of course, it means that the titles are beginning to lose their clout and status.

There have always been honours and titles in Malaysia. In a country which has a king for every state, the idea of hierarchy is very well established but questionably coveted. Living in a higher social standing has undoubted benefits when trying to progress in life whether waiting in queues, by-passing traffic jams or side-lining mixed up, jangled bureaucratic ordinance. Life will immediately be on the fast track and open to mansions in London, Ferrari’s and private islands.

Needless to say even in 2010 UMNO Youth Chief Khairy Jamaluddin was quoted as saying:

“If you throw a stone in Oxford Street (London)- not even in Malaysia- you will hit a Datuk. If such a joke can be made, then things have gotten too far”

But it is increasingly difficult to monitor the number of people who hold the title. Dr. Lim Teck Ghee, the director of Centre for Policy Initiatives was quoted as saying that “If we could do a count of how many Datuks there are in the country, it may be several tens of thousands, or more.” The Malaysian Factbook website stipulates that only 400 federal datukships can be given out at one time where as state datukships are unlimited. The difference between the two boils down to semantics and it is a sobering thought when imagining ‘tens of thousands’ being conferred the same privilege as a Knighthood in Britain.

It is too easy. With fifteen avenues available to become eligible for a ‘Knighthood’ the position is there for those who would pursue it. Not to mention the ghostly spectre of corruption hovering over the process allowing the titles to be bought for a sum most wealthy Malaysians will make back in a couple of months. For a modest RM250,000 Malaysians are vaulted into the upper echelons of society with instant, shimmering guests lists and a permanent place in the address book of others.

Journalist Raja Petra Kamarudin- writing for Malaysia Today Online- allegedly believes “rich… Datuks can get away with murder, sometimes literally as well.” A sobering thought indeed.


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